A crash course in Asian logic

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The Independent Online
Walk down the aeroplane steps to be met by a dignitary and a couple of television cameras - perhaps even a purple garland or two, if things are going well. Take the motorcade into town, meet the foreign minister, meet the president or prime minister, give a hasty press conference (we're running late, again). And then it's off back to the mini-motorcade, and the airport, to repeat the pattern in the next country.

Robin Cook, Labour's first foreign secretary for two decades, is quickly getting used to the rhythms of a statesman's whistle-stop tour. He is visiting four countries in five days during his first major overseas tour: Malaysia (Thursday), Indonesia (yesterday), the Philippines (today) and Singapore (Monday). The Philippines is the only place he is spending more than one night - a change in rhythm that allows a couple of hours for the Glasgow Herald's distinguished racing tipster to go to the races.

Ask why Mr Cook has chosen to make South-east Asia his first high-profile destination, and he gives a string of upbeat reasons. "We recognise the importance of South-east Asia in the world. The centre of economic gravity is shifting. We must take account of the new economic reality. We are by far the biggest European investor in South-east Asia. We are uniquely placed to be a bridge between Asia and Europe." It's a version of Douglas Hurd's "punching above our weight" theme, though somewhat more plausible.

And human rights? Ask Mr Cook - back in the comfort of the ministerial VC10, en route to the next welcome ceremony - whether his choice of South- east Asia might be connected with his proclaimed desire for an ethical foreign policy, and he gives you a Cookly quizzical look. Human rights, he says easily, are an important issue all over the world, not just in South-east Asia. Booming trade relations are the official mainstay of the trip.

In reality, of course, the human rights issue is crucial. Here, more than anywhere else in the world, Mr Cook's new ethical foreign policy will be tested in practice. There are plenty of countries whose human rights record is far worse than that of Indonesia. But there are none where the dilemma of human rights vs trade and lucrative exports has been cast into such sharp relief. Rightly or wrongly, the sale of arms to Indonesia has taken on an almost emblematic quality as a test for Mr Cook's proclaimed new policy. When he gave the go-ahead for the sale of Hawk aircraft to the Indonesian air force, he was widely criticised within his own party. The sale of Hawks, which some fear could be used against the rebels in the occupied territory of East Timor, became a cause celebre in Britain- and a source of bafflement in Indonesia itself.

His visit to Indonesia means none can now accuse him of shirking a challenge. To Mr Cook's Conservative predecessors, for example, anybody who started asking questions about ethical issues was a foolish ingenu who did not understood "the real world". At the other end of the spectrum an ethical leader, the Czech President Vaclav Havel, did not hide his political sulk when he had to bow to commercial pressures on arms sales.

Mr Cook, by contrast, seems to revel in the danger of the high-wire act. He has been practising for months, and is now performing to an international audience for the first time. Minutes before curtain-up, he is still tinkering with the act. Speeches have crucial tough and conciliatory passages inserted and removed, as the arguments at the front of the plane continue over just how much the local audience can take, and at what point they might decide to boo the performer off the stage.

In Malaysia on Thursday, Mr Cook's keynote speech emphasised the universality of human rights. The Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has suggested that the 1948 United Nations declaration on human rights should be redrafted, as it had been formulated "by superpowers which did not understand the needs of poor countries". The proposal received a warm response from both Indonesia and China, but Mr Cook insisted that the UN declaration should be non-negotiable. The Malaysians were not impressed. In the words of foreign minister, Abdullah Badawi: "It is very difficult to have one common yardstick that is universally applicable."

In Indonesia yesterday, things got much more complicated. With smiles, both sides agreed that the discussions had been - in a near-parody of the standard diplomatic phrase for a blazing row - "frank and wide-ranging".

Mr Cook was keen to put a good spin on the relationship. "We are partners and friends," he said. "We want to strengthen the commercial relationship between Britain and Indonesia." He hosted a breakfast at the ambassador's residence for British businessmen, who had little time for all this public hoo-hah. As one of them noted, "If people criticise in public, it could offend the Indonesians ... These things are better done in private." At the end of his day in Jakarta, Mr Cook rounded the visit off with some human rights yin to balance the commercial yang. He met a group of human rights activists, before leaving for the military airport (no British Hawks in sight). On Thursday evening he telephoned Bishop Belo, the Nobel- prize-winning Bishop of East Timor, who is as popular with the Indonesian government as Nobel-winning Archbishop Desmond Tutu was beloved by South Africa's apartheid regime. Indonesia firmly believes that its 22-year occupation and repression of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor is nobody's business but its own.

The Indonesian Observer was not untypical, when it complained this week: "In all likelihood, [Mr Cook] will spend most of his time here lecturing Indonesians on human rights." Interestingly, the paper linked Mr Cook's criticisms of Indonesia's track record to the handover of Hong Kong to China. "His psyche may not be different from that of a man who has just been deprived of valuable real estate but is too proud to acknowledge it. Such characters would almost invariably jump at the chance to patronise others in order to deflect efforts to scrutinise them." This is "Asian values" logic: anybody who criticises is an imperialist manque.

Unlike China or the old Soviet Union, Indonesia is not a straightforwardly totalitarian regime. Plenty of ordinary Indonesians share the view of Bobby, a smiling student of civil engineering. "The criticisms are unfair. It hurts our feelings." He agreed that it was impossible to criticise President Suharto publicly. But, he implied, so what? "It's not about likes or dislikes. We can count on him." Even those who are outspoken in their criticism do not always suffer in proportion. Some have been arrested, jailed, even killed. Others remain at liberty, their voices merely muffled.

Muchtar Pakpahan, a trade unionist and former lawyer who is charged with subversion for his criticism of the government, is seriously ill in hospital, awaiting the resumption of his trial. He is guarded, to prevent his escape - but the dozy policeman at the door nods visitors into his hospital room. By the time we leave, the policeman has vanished. Mr Pakpahan's treatment at the hands of the government is itself contradictory. A book that he wrote helped to get Mr Pakpahan freed. And yet: the book was reprinted several months after Mr Pakpahan was rearrested in July last year. "They didn't prohibit the book. But they arrested me." In response to the bemused look, he smiles wistfully and shrugs: "Indonesia ..."

Mr Cook had an on-off appointment to meet Mr Pakpahan, but in fact never met him. A conspiracy theorist might think that the meeting with Mr Pakpahan - cordially loathed by President Suharto - had been sacrificed, to ensure that there would be no public bust-up with the Indonesian government. "Absolutely not," insist Mr Cook's aides. "There just wasn't time to fit it in."

Whatever the truth of the Pakpahan hiccup - either Mr Pakpahan or British officials are being miserly with the truth - Mr Pakpahan's experience makes it clear that the change of Foreign Office policy is much more than just empty rhetoric. Until recently, Mr Pakpahan was conspicuously cold- shouldered by the British. "I met people from the German embassy often, the French, the Italians, the Swiss, the Dutch, everybody. But the British never wanted to see me ... Now, since May - I have had several meetings." Some British diplomats in the region do not conceal their relief that they are no longer merely expected to be glorified salesmen, and are allowed to care about human rights. Others look seriously discomfited, adjusting with difficulty away from the old party line, which argued: "Trade is all that matters." Sometimes, by mistake, a diplomat starts singing the praises of the Pergau dam in Malaysia, for example - the project that was notoriously funded from the development aid budget, to help British contractors. Mr Cook has repeatedly made it clear that Pergau was the antithesis of what his policy stands for.

There is no doubt that the policy change is real. What began as a video presentation and some dubious sound-bites is undoubtedly going somewhere - but where? Mr Cook bustles around with a self-confidence that brooks no contradiction. If he succeeds in pushing the Indonesians even half- way down the right road, then that can be measured as a success. At first glance, it looks as though he has successfully hoopla-ed his way across the big top - firm but fair, as the old phrase had it.

But there is no safety net in this game. If things go well, then Mr Cook's policy will gain in strength as the months and years go by. But - as Mr Cook undoubtedly knows, though he would never say so out loud - the crash could still be lethal. If he begins to soft-pedal - on human rights around the world - he loses all credibility; if he pushes things too far, the knock-on for trade and diplomacy could be disastrous. Even for a loverof the high-wire act,it is not a happy choice.